Posted: November 01, 2010
Top Company 2010: Stone Age Inc.
Winner in the manufacturing categoryBy Mike Taylor
StoneAge Inc. is one of the world's leading providers of tools and equipment for water-blast cleaning, with 55 employees and 170 distributors in 35 countries.
But the Durango-based company didn't start out the way co-founders Jerry Zink and John Wolgamott envisioned when they set out to develop their product in Zink's garage in 1979.
Zink was a graduate student at Colorado School of Mines, and Wolgamott was working at the school's research facility when they decided to collaborate on a water-jet drill that would enable uranium miners to drill holes in rocks rather than blasting them. But just as the duo had perfected the technology, the uranium mining market collapsed, leaving Zink and Wolgamott with a great water-jet tool but no place to sell it.
But the two persevered, and their water-jet tool proved ideal in the cleaning of pipes, tubes and plugged heat exchangers. Their small company followed up with other high-pressure equipment using similar technology.
Today all of the design, research and development, prototyping and short production runs are handled at StoneAge's Durango facility. Because of the large quantities of products StoneAge sells, the company outsources the machining of its parts to vendors all over the United States.
Manufacturing all the parts in-house would require a facility 10 times its current size and machinists working two or three shifts. So the parts StoneAge outsources are shipped back to Durango where they are assembled into products that are tested before being shipped to customers.
"Outsourcing has worked really well for us, to allow us to stay in this community," says CEO Kerry Petranek, who is also a Colorado School of Mines graduate. "If we didn't, I don't think there's any way we could stay here."
At StoneAge every employee is a designated member of the "customer service team," and during regular business hours phones are answered by live receptionists, not automated phone directories. The company's website, www.stoneagetools.com, provides access to maintenance manuals, research papers and videos.
After slogging through the recession in 2009 - sales were down about 8 percent compared with 2008 - StoneAge has rebounded with a projected 35 percent revenue increase this year. And the company did it without laying off any employees.
"We decided that if we could make it work, we were going to keep everybody, because when we came out of it, we would be struggling to rehire and retrain, and we just didn't want to lose the talent that we had," says Petranek, 31, who was named one of ColoradoBiz magazine's 25 Most Influential Young Professionals for 2010.
"We didn't make any capital purchases, which really increased our cash flow. We came out much, much stronger. We invested in R&D, and we invested in marketing. And I think that's why we're seeing this 35 percent increase in sales."
Indeed, in keeping with its mantra that R&D is its lifeblood, StoneAge introduced 12 new products in 2008-2009.
And even though the effects of the recession may not be over, Petranek points out, "We're fortunate to be in an industry where things have to be cleaned."
Petranek cites the company's people and its culture as two qualities that have made it a Top Company. For that she credits the founders, Zink and Wolgamott.
"They wanted to create really good jobs for themselves where they had flexibility and a good work environment when they first started the company in 1979, and that's just carried over to all the employees as the company has grown over the last 30 years," Petranek says. "And then, it helps that we have a really great product to sell."
Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.